Questioning Sanity at Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington

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-Rajesh K. Jha

Any visitor to Washington can’t resist the temptation to see White House, even if from outside. I was no exception. On a warm, sunny afternoon of late September 2015, I decided to go and see the White House. Sadly for me, the White Houses was fenced off for the visitors who could only have a distant look at the residence of the most powerful person on the earth, the President of the United States. I was dejected but determined to see whatever I could. I was walking on the pavement facing the White House when my eyes fell on a curious site. A small, almost shrivelled old lady seemed to hog all the limelight at the Lafayette Park, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington.

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People were crossing  the road, trying their best to look beyond the garden to have a glimpse of the White House. But they turned back and came to the small tent where Ms. Conception Piccioto has been staying since 1981. She has been protesting against Nuclear Arms since last 35 years. Hernsmall semi circular tent surrounded by placards declaring ‘Live by the Bomb…..Die by the Bomb’, ‘Civilised people don’t nuke fellow humans’ was the site of protest, defying the Park Police of Washington DC. A placard proudly announced the purpose of her presence here- A peace vigil since 1981.

Face lined with wrinkles, donning a helmet like headgear, she talked enthusiastically to a group of visitors who approached her for a chat. I could not understand the thick accented conversation between them but the animated face of Ms Piccioto, affectionately called Conny by her friends and admirers, radiated conviction and doggedness. The lonely yet unique resistance put up by her defined the space around Pennsylvania Avenue. Come hailstorm or snow, braving police or an occasional aggressive passer-by she had not left this site of protest for the last three decades and half. It is considered to be the longest running protest in the history of United States. With the handwritten placards surrounding her plastic tent, she would chat with people, hand them over pamphlets advocating peace, nuclear disarmament or just sit quietly letting curious people have a look at her and the unique protest site.

Ms. Piccioto was born in western Spain. Orphaned early in her childhood and raised by her grandmother, she arrived in US sometime in the early 1960s. She had her share of problems- a troubled marriage, poverty and homelessness. She even faced fraudulent confinement to a mental health clinic by her husband. Finally, she decided to come to Washington to fight for the custody of her adopted daughter from her former husband- an Italian businessman. In her desperation to seek help from the local congressmen for the custody of her daughter, she started coming to the Lafayette Park with her placards seeking justice whenever she could get time from her job as a baby sitter. However, at one point of time she decided to adopt the radical slogan of protest that inspired the student movement and feminism in the 1960s- the personal is political. Undaunted by the fact that her private struggle yielded no result, she slowly took up bigger issues of peace and justice. Opposing nuclear arms, war and Zionism became the soul purpose of her life. She joined hands with William Thomas who had been protesting in front of White House since 1980.He was a peace activist, was earlier expelled from Great Britain for discarding his passport and declaring himself stateless. William Thomas died in 2009.

Many people described Ms.  Piccioto as a person suffering from psychiatric problem. It could be true, depending upon what one considers a psychiatric condition. After all, as Foucault argued, madness is not an individual affliction but located within a specific cultural space of society. Madness of an individual is quite inseparable from the deep structures of society itself. Indeed a   life-long demonstration against the biggest power on the earth with practically no chance of success is a ‘mindless’ activity but she was able to attract attention of the people- tourists, casual visitors and even big media to herself and the issues she fought for. She made an appearance in the 2004 documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by Michael Moore as well as another documentary named The Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue in 2011. Recognising her presence on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of White House, Washington Post wrote- ‘The vigil evolved into a well-recognized feature of the city’s landscape. The makeshift shelter became a regular stop for D.C. tour guides and a topic of discussion in local college classrooms.

Ms. Conception Picciotto died on 25 January 2016.

In an obituary reference to her, the New York Times wrote, “Ms. Picciotto was, by most standards, eccentric, typically clad in a wig, helmet and head scarf as she proselytized for peace, “to stop the world from being destroyed,” while also complaining about unspecified persecution and conspiracies. Was she sane? …..She was in the grey for sure. ….What’s happening in the aftermath of her death is testimony that she did accomplish something. She was a person of passionate attachment to some ideas. You can call that sane or not, but it made a difference.”

Are we too sane? Too thoughtful not to step into the world of uncertainty to try our bit for a better world of peace and justice, without bombs and wars?

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One thought on “Questioning Sanity at Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington

  1. Imagine a democratic system that causes numerous wars and death of people in the name of democracy! It makes conditions for people like Ms. Conception to be disturbed and become ‘insane’ to launch a unique and tenaciois protest right in front of the seat of the power, the White House. (Can we imagine the same or anything similar in the largest democracy of the world! It will immediately be called an act of treason.)
    Interestingly, a protest begotten by the most powerful democratic system eventually becomes a feather in its cap. Yes, in the death of Ms. Conception, White House has lost one of its rare fig leaves!! And, Ms. Conception herself becomes a sysmbol of lending deep meanings to an ‘insane’ act of protest. She sat like a fly on the noae of the emperor that the emperor decided to treat as a wart or a beauty spot!!

    SO well written article, indeed. Kudos!

    Liked by 2 people

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